Originally posted on July 22, 2016.
Last month, the Vatican made it known that Mary Magdalene, the (for better or worse) most infamous woman in the New Testament, would be having her July 22 memorial day upgraded to a feast day on the liturgical calendar. This change – elevating her into the saintly strata occupied by the twelve apostles – is being made in recognition of Mary’s role as Apostolorum Apostola, or “apostle to the apostles,” referring to her bearing witness to the risen Christ at the tomb on Easter and being instructed by him to tell his brothers that he would soon ascend to his Father (John 20:17).
The Vatican’s decree explicitly notes the confusion about Mary Magdalene’s identity over the years: her conflation with other female figures in the New Testament, especially the woman who tearfully anoints Jesus’s feet (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50) and Mary of Bethany, among others; how this conflation dates back to Pope Gregory I (d. 604) and a homily he gave that aimed to settle once and for all how the faithful were supposed to keep track of the many Marys (and unnamed women) who peppered Jesus’s life. The decree goes on to acknowledge that “this interpretation continued to influence western ecclesiastical authors, Christian art and liturgical texts relative to this Saint” – which, to anyone, believer or non-believer, in the twenty-first century, might seem like a bit of an understatement. To those of us exposed not only to Church teachings that tend to favor centuries of tradition rather than recent scholarship, as well as pop culture, the image of Mary Magdalene, that one stand-out woman in Jesus’s band of followers, inevitably leans toward the sensational… as well as the incorrect.
It’s 2016, and it is still somehow news to some of my fellow students in my postgraduate theology course that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute.
We have all seen her, painted, sculpted, singing on stage, weeping on screen, with her long hair and full, sorrowful, miracle-beholding eyes. Sometimes she admits to having “had so many men before.” Sometimes Jesus saves her from being stoned to death. In a recent film adaptation, she was introduced to the audience in the form of a cheap laugh – a tribune asks the men in his barracks how many of them know of a woman called Mary Magdalene; many raise their hands – though this profession of ill repute is not actually important to her characterization throughout the rest of the film, other than making it easier for the tribune to find her. While the Virgin Mary hardly comes before us, in more traditional iconography, without her head covered, Mary Magdalene is known for her lustrous locks, whether they are meant to hint at her status as a fallen woman, or being used to dry Christ’s feet, or either revealing or covering her naked body while she prays in seclusion, as medieval legend reports. Even without her handy attribute of the jar of ointment she bears or keeps close by in so many paintings, she is a character we recognize on-sight: the beautiful woman who loved Jesus, and whom Jesus, that safe haven for sinners, loved in return.
No matter how many times it may be repeated that the Gospels never claim that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, nor an adulterer, nor explicitly refer to her as a sinner of any kind (especially a sexual sinner, though for women that has historically been viewed as going hand-in-hand), the image of her as such is difficult to shake. And it’s not hard to see why. Arguably one of the most appealing facets of both Jesus of Nazareth the man of first-century Palestine and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is his unabashed association with those reviled by society. He publicly announced that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before the priests and elders (Matthew 21:31). That a man of such power regarded the disgraced women of his day as worthy of the love of God is a captivating image and lesson… it just doesn’t apply to Mary Magdalene.
So what does apply to her? What can we take away from the woman who watched as her rabbi was crucified and then saw him alive three days later? The Vatican highlights her crucial twofold role as the first witness to the Resurrection and the first witness to the apostles. In the garden on Easter morning, she is a counterpoint to Eve, who made Jesus’s presence in the world necessary with her own dalliance in the Garden of Eden. Of the cryptic words of Jesus to his shocked, beseeching disciple – “Do not cling to me” or “Touch me not” (John 20:17) – the Vatican says, “This is an invitation to enter into an experience of faith that goes beyond materialistic assumptions and the human grasping after the divine Mystery which is not simply addressed to Mary but to the entire Church. This is an ecclesial moment! This is an important lesson for every disciple of Jesus Christ to neither seek human securities nor the vainglory of this world, but in faith to seek the living and risen Christ!”
I applaud this move to highlight the merits of Mary Magdalene that are actually present and discernable in the text. I love that she is being held up as an example to all women as a disciple, which diverts so greatly from the example made of her for centuries: that of a redeemed woman, a sinner saved from the corruption of earthly pleasures by the great mercy of Christ. But even at this juncture, where we can claim to separate the “real Mary” from the long-lasting but fading image, I fear that the connotations of Mary’s imagined but strategically exemplary life linger. Along with being acknowledged as an evangelist, she is thought of as a “witness of Divine Mercy.” Jesus revealing himself to her in the garden – a truly touching, tender moment in which he simply says her name (John 20:16) – is interpreted as Jesus taking pity on her and her tears. It is not a joyful but poignantly momentary reunion between two people who were close, but an example of God showing the lowly mercy; this view of the intimate encounter in John comes from the same homily that bound the Magdalene up with other sorrowful, atoning women, and as such, extends the nature of Mary’s “redemption” from her disgrace into the Resurrection. It implies her continual lowliness at this moment in which she should be elevated, in which she clearly has been singled out to behold a miracle and is entrusted to spread word of it. It should speak more of Jesus’s regard of her as a disciple than it should recall the theme of forgiveness. Again, the boundlessness of Jesus’s mercy is a beautiful idea, but it should not color this important moment in the Gospels that makes such a strong argument for women’s rightful place in the Church.
I am so much more intrigued by the Magdalene hinted at in the Gospel of John than I am by the imagined prostitute whom Jesus accepted in spite of her sins. I am also more intrigued by the Mary of the New Testament than the one often conjured up in modern fiction. The deeply embedded sexual component of the Mary myth (when not being used by the Church to teach young women lessons) has supplied writers, filmmakers, and believers bored by the squeaky-clean Jesus handed down to them with a woman who perhaps was following the Nazarene around for a very specific reason. The gnostic Gospel of Mary – a fifth-century codex discovered in the late 1800s – says that Mary (never specifically noted as Mary Magdalene) was loved by Christ above all the other disciples, inspiring jealousy in the apostles. The third-century apocryphal Gospel of Philip calls her the companion of the Lord, and there exists a debate over what that might mean. Could it be that our celibate Jesus actually had a lover, or a wife? Was it Mary Magdalene? Was she part of a different, more normal life shelved in favor of bringing about salvation, as she is in Nikos Kazantzakis’s and Martin Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ, or was she his beloved, possibly the mother of his child and carrier of his divine bloodline, as Dan Brown presented her? Is Mary Magdalene, hiding in plain sight in the Gospels, our sign that Jesus Christ was fully human in a way that orthodox Christianity has never dared admit?
If that is the case, there is nothing resembling hard evidence to support it, and if evidence was somehow discovered tomorrow, I would accept it. But as it stands, the two lovers, or the husband and wife, may tantalize us by pulling off the covers of our Bibles to reveal the romance underneath – in existing in all that we can imagine is unsaid – but the notion again undercuts what the existence of Mary Magdalene meant in the first century and could mean now.
So little biographical information about the Magdalene exists in the Bible, but here is what we do know of her role before the passion: she followed Jesus (Mark 15:41); she supported his ministry financially (Luke 8:3); and Jesus cured her of seven demons (Luke 8:2). These scraps of information alone suggest a rich and interesting backstory we will never know. How did she come to the money she used to finance Jesus’s travels? How was she able to escape the domestic bounds of everyday life for a first-century Jewish woman and follow a rabbi around? What does it mean that she was freed of seven demons? But of all the possibilities that exist in this scant record, I find myself awestruck by the implications of two textual facts: she is mentioned by name in all four canonical Gospels, and she is the only named female follower who is not recalled by her relation to a man.
No one is completely sure what the epithet Magdalene means (in much the same way that there is no agreement on what Iscariot connotes for Judas), but nowhere in the New Testament is Mary Magdalene called anyone’s sister, wife, or mother. Not only do I find that unusual independence striking (even men were known as sons of their fathers), but the idea that Jesus kept the company of a woman to whom he was unrelated. This, in keeping with much of his countercultural and inflammatory behavior, was revolutionary. And not only was he clearly spending significant time with unrelated women regardless of social consequence, but teaching them. He was a Jewish rabbi with female disciples. We take for granted now how significant this aspect of his ministry was, even as palpable traces of the very misogyny Jesus’s ministry rebuffed linger in religious communities today.
That Mary Magdalene – who could have been someone’s sister, wife, or mother, but clearly not someone with whom the communities the evangelists were writing to were familiar – was in fact known by those same communities resonates with me. Many women go unnamed – most ironically the woman who Jesus claims will be remembered and is often conflated with the Magdalene (Matthew 26:13) – or simply get grouped together as “the women” in the New Testament, but all four authors mention Mary Magdalene specifically. By the time the Gospel of John was written, the collection of women at the tomb in the Synoptic accounts was whittled down to just Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles.
So I don’t want the fallen woman, and I don’t want the wife. Those are good stories, but they demote her, or what she could have been. I want the woman who defied all societal expectation and religious impediment by becoming an apostle and bearing her own name while doing it. She is a potent symbol to me in these times where she can be celebrated for her special role in the evangelization of the Church’s infant days and extoled as a model for women who are still denied equality at a liturgical level. We can claim that Mary Magdalene was just as important as the twelve apostles without being one of them, just as women today are told that we are full and vital members of the Church body that won’t admit us into the priesthood or diaconate. In this context, this motion to recognize the importance of Mary Magdalene feels earned but hollow. For women, 2,000 years after the fact, the Church is still a place where the loyal Mary Magdalene is told she cannot touch her risen rabboni but the doubting Thomas is invited to touch his wounds.
Image: Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, c. 1535-40, Mary Magdalene.